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Dinner Party

By Susan Heldt Davis

Last January Jeremy moved in with me. He's a sweet guy, a little quiet, and not at all sophisticated. He's in grad school in philosophy and looks it--thick glasses, wispy blond hair that’s thinning even though he's only 25. Not at all like me. I'm more arty than intellectual. Plus, I'm a couple of years older--well, three years--and I’ve already been married and divorced, twice (don't ask!). So I know the ropes, if you know what I mean, and he has no clue about the ropes. In fact, he'd never been near the ropes before me, if you catch my drift.

I work in the art-supply section of the Harvard Coop, which is where we met. He was lost by the pastels, and I helped him find the philosophy section. Then we went for coffee, and I gave him my number--on a napkin, just like in that movie with Matt Damon.

This thing with Jeremy was good while it lasted. I taught him a lot about the world, and he taught me a little about Kant. And I ask you, who got the best of the deal? What does Kant have to do with getting along in life?

We were just fine until that dinner party. You wouldn't think a single evening could break up a good couple, would you? But, maybe it showed we are from different worlds. Maybe Jeremy wants to live in a world of dinner parties To me a dinner party is nothing more than a big fuss about expensive china and the right wine to match oh so elegant food. I can’t stand it. I get queasy just looking at a table laid with multiple forks, and then I can’t eat what other people eat. I simply can't. That’s why I made my own salad. And now Jeremy is gone. Why? Over a little salad. I don't get it. I just don't get it. So, I'll tell you and you can decide.

Right around the first of February, Jeremy's old friends, Doug and Emily, called to invite us to a party on Valentine’s Day. When Jeremy asked me whether we should go, I was hesitant, picturing big paper hearts and pink champagne punch. But he promised that it would be an ordinary dinner party, so we accepted the invitation. And I was glad we did. I thought his friends probably wanted to scope me out. Like, was I good enough for their friend and all. At the time I didn't mind. Little did I know.

In the weeks before the dinner, Jeremy kind of laughed at Doug and Emily because they fretted about every detail--who should be seated next to whom, whether they should have spinach-feta cheese balls, or melon and prosciutto, or jalapeno frittatas for starters, sage dressing or blue cheese for the salad. That kind of thing. So I thought we should help out by being dressed especially nicely. Elegant clothes always add a bit of panache to a party. Unfortunately, all Jeremy owned at the time were corduroy pants and seriously old sweaters. He needed a suit, some nice shirts, and at least one top-of-the-line tie. I decided to take him shopping.

He was real reluctant, saying, "I'm a graduate student. Why do I need a suit?"

"You're going to get a job some day, and then you'll need an interview suit. Besides, suits are what men own," I told him. I mean, it's just common sense.

He is such a sweetie; by Saturday he caved and went along with me to Brooks Brothers--I figure, if you're going to have only one suit, it ought to be classic. Of course, Jeremy wasn’t ready for the prices, but I showed him how, if he charged everything on his parents' Visa, he could pay them back over six months and not have to pay interest. We got him an elegant navy blue suit, a white shirt for formal occasions, and a pink-on-pink stripe for less formal ones. For a tie we went to Hugo Boss. Even I was surprised at how handsome he looked all dressed up. Then, for me, we bought a red silk dress: A long, simple A-line, belted at the waist. I have such a small waist, I like to wear dresses that show it off.

On the night of the dinner party, I wanted to hire a car, but Jeremy refused.

"Doug and Emily live close enough to the T," he insisted. "It'll be easy to walk to their house. And I am just not a person who turns up at my friend's house in a limo."

Now, I know how to take no for an answer, even if I think someone is making a mistake. I was wearing sling-back three-inch heels--a must with the red silk--and it was bitterly cold outside with icy spots, so walking was very much an issue for me; but, if Jeremy wanted to walk, I could walk.

Doug and Emily's apartment, the main floor of an old Victorian, has high ceilings, tall windows, and even a wraparound porch. Jeremy was about to ring the bell when the door opened and there stood Doug, a tall, thin guy with owlish glasses like Jeremy's, and Emily, a pretty-enough blonde with a wide grin. Jeremy handed Emily the wine we brought and made a big show of sniffing the air as he leaned in to kiss her cheek, saying, "What smells so good, Emily?"

She beamed. It was cute.

"Oh, just something I rustled up this afternoon."

"I can hardly wait to get a taste," Jeremy said. I think he really meant that, although I have to say, the smell of sauteed garlic does not awaken my appetite.

When Emily took our coats, her eyes opened real wide: She was jealous of my dress, I could tell. It did show up her outfit. Next to me, she looked plain and homespun in her gray, cowl-neck sweater and long wool skirt.

First, Doug and Emily took us on a tour of the apartment. You could tell they were proud of their little house and all of their pretty new things, which probably were wedding presents. Well, I've been there--new china, new rugs, shiny pots and matching pans--and their stuff wasn't all that special. But I didn't say anything. I mean, I don't like to be rude. Then we were introduced to Doug's friends, Tom and Melissa, both in grad school at MIT, and to Emily's colleague, Sarah, the speech pathologist at Emily's school, and to Ron, a friend of Jeremy's and Doug's from college, a surprisingly cute guy for this crowd. Doug got us all glasses of wine, and Emily brought in a plate of hors d'oeuvres--spinach balls, melon wraps and miniature frittatas.

Everyone ate and talked and seemed to be having a good time, but, still, something didn't look right. It was the people. I don't get it about these intellectual types: Not one of the men except Jeremy was wearing a tie, let alone a jacket. I think Jeremy felt a little overdressed, even though he was wearing the pink shirt, not the white one. I could tell because after a few minutes he slipped out of his jacket as if he were hot. Maybe it was warm in there, but I think it was a shame to ruin the look we'd worked so hard to put together.

By that time, Jeremy had started talking about Kant and the Categorical Imperative, as he loves to do, and the friend Ron was giving him a bad time, saying that he ought to have "objectivism" or something like that. I don't know these technical philosophy terms, but the tone started to get a little serious, like they really disagreed, and that made me nervous.

Anyway, I was not happy with the way Jeremy's new jacket was getting all crunched behind his back. So I got up to go to the bathroom and took the jacket with me. That way, I could smooth it out and put it somewhere safe. This turned out to be one of the really interesting moments of the whole evening. I brought it into the bedroom where all the coats were lying on the bed. Since the jacket was new and all, I wanted to hang it up, so I opened the closet to get a hanger. You'll never guess what I saw on the inside of the closet door: Tacked up ever so neatly were Emily's to-do lists for this party. She is so obsessive. I mean everything was planned out. She had practically a minute-by-minute list of to-do's from six o'clock in the morning right through to dessert, one column for her and one for Doug. She’d even made a little drawing of the table showing where everyone would sit and where the platter of this would go and the dish of that. Talk about doing your homework! But what a liar: "Something I rustled up this afternoon,” my foot.

Back in the living room, I half-listened to Doug and Jeremy who were now talking about postmodernism and how it relates to the law. Doug is in law school, so wouldn't you know the conversation would be all about him. Anyway, I probably shouldn't have said anything, but I noticed that it was getting toward 8:00 and the list said that from 8:00 to 8:15 Emily was supposed to take out the chicken, turn on the asparagus, and make the sauce, and then from 8:15 to 8:25 set up the platter and heat the bread. She had to get going to stay on schedule, so I said, "It's almost eight, Emily. Don't you have to take out the chicken?"

Emily looked at me with a wide-open mouth. No kidding. Like you see in the movies. She probably thought I was clairvoyant or something. Everyone turned to see what had happened, so I said, "I saw it on the schedule in the bedroom. Eight o'clock, take out chicken, turn on asparagus. You are so organized, Emily." I thought the compliment would make her feel good, but it didn't seem to. She just blushed deep red as everyone stopped talking. But I was right about the time because just then she disappeared into the kitchen. For two or three more minutes no one talked, then, finally, Jeremy broke the ice, asking the Ron person, "Which of Ayn Rand's books do you think best expresses her philosophy?"

Ron answered, and pretty soon everyone was talking to him. No one was talking to me, but that was O.K. Since I am a feminist, and philosophically opposed to making “the little woman” do all the work by herself, I went into the kitchen to keep Emily company.

That's when I saw the platters set out, already decorated with sprigs of tarragon, and I knew I was not going to eat whatever was going on those platters. Besides, some really nice greens--arugula and watercress and wonderful radicchio, just wonderful--were on the counter next to an enormous glass salad bowl.

I thought it would be easier if Emily knew she didn't have to cook for me, so I said, pointing at the roasting pan, “None for me."

“Don’t you eat chicken?” she asked.

"Sometimes," I said. "Just not tonight."

She seemed fine with my decision, and took two pieces of chicken from the pan and kind of sloppily shoved them in the refrigerator.

"But I do like salad," I said, taking from the cupboard a plate--cranberry red to match my dress--and ripping up some arugula and watercress and a lot of the wonderful radicchio. Pretty soon my salad was so high that leaves were falling off the plate, so I pulled a few out and tossed them into the glass salad bowl. I always like to help out.

It was funny; Emily seemed on edge. I thought she’d want company in the kitchen. But she was so grouchy, barely answering the easiest questions, that I almost left. If having a dinner party screws with your mind like that, I think you should just invite people to a restaurant or something.

When I finished making my salad, Emily was stirring a yellowish concoction in the top of a double boiler. I reached across the stove to get some oregano --a sprinkle of oregano can make a salad just come alive--and noticed a little bowl of ice cubes someone had forgotten to put away sitting on top of the stove. I like to help when I can, so I put it in the freezer. I mean, what a stupid place to leave a bowl of ice cubes, on top of a hot stove. Emily just stared at me and didn't say a word. She could have asked me not to put the stupid bowl away. I would have thought her odd, but hey, I'm easy. I'd have left it right there, ice melting and all. But, no. She lets me go ahead and put the ice cubes in the freezer and then, with a lot of clatter, pulls her double boiler off the flame and runs over to the freezer and takes out the little bowl. I couldn't figure out what was going on. She said she needed the ice in case her bernaise sauce curdled. I frankly don't think you should serve a sauce that curdles, but what do I know? The one thing in the room that was curdling for sure, though, was her voice. Boy, I thought to myself, am I glad I’m not Doug. Who would want to live with a grouch like Emily?

And then, if you can believe it, she got worse. When I tried to take the lemon that was lying next to the stove so I could make a little dressing for my salad, I thought she’d cut my hand off. No kidding. She reached out, grabbed the lemon, and said in a real soft but edgy voice, "I need that lemon for the sauce."

That was it. I decided to take my salad as it was into the dining room. If I wasn't appreciated in the kitchen, helping out and all, then I was going to find somewhere else to be. In the dining room, the table was so full of china with fancy gold rims, cut crystal glasses, and silverware, I couldn't figure out where to put my plate, so I chose the easiest place, the one at the far end of the table. For a second or two, I thought about going back into the kitchen to help Emily again, but the greens looked so delicious I couldn’t resist. I got the salt and pepper shakers from the middle of the table and sat down to eat.

Now, if you are invited for a dinner party, you expect to have dinner, don’t you? And I was having dinner. And, by the way, I was thoroughly enjoying myself; the greens were perfect.

A couple of minutes later, Emily came into the room carrying her platter, which now was covered with asparagus fanned out neatly and topped with pieces of chicken swimming in, I have to admit, a delicious-smelling sauce. I was about to tell her how beautiful the platter looked. I mean, it made even me want to eat chicken. But I didn't have a chance. She stood there with her eyes blinking and nearly screamed--that is, she squeaked as if she wanted to scream but was holding it in. I thought she was going to drop that pretty platter, so I got up and reached for her arm. That's when she roared, really roared, "NO!" Ok, she didn’t need help, but was it a crime to offer?

After the roar, Doug ran in from the living room. I would have thought he'd help Emily make a space for the platter--I think the plan I saw had it going right at my end of the table--or at least make sure she didn't drop it, but no, he just stood there staring at me. Now, I like to think I am not bad looking, and my dress was to die for, but a man shouldn’t make such a show of staring at a woman when he is standing next to his wife. How rude!

I knew Emily was upset, and I can't blame her, seeing her husband eye me like that. Even though I knew it wasn't my fault, I wanted to make it up to her, so I ate three pieces of the chicken and said it was delicious, although it filled me up enough that I couldn't eat my salad. And it was delicious, or at least I thought so at the time, but maybe I was just unconsciously giving Emily a break. I noticed Jeremy and even Emily ate only one piece. Anyway, my compliments didn't work: For the rest of the night Emily didn't speak to me. Then, on Monday, Jeremy moved out. He said it had something to do with Kant, but I’m betting it had more to do with Emily.

Whatever. Maybe I’ll call that guy Ron. He was really cute.

 

Susan Heldt Davis has a masters degree in English with a concentration in creative writing from NYU, and after years in business has gone back to writing. In the interim, she wrote advertising for movie and entertainment books, and published how-to articles for a home-schooling magazine. She currently has her own business, a tutoring service in Westchester County, NY.

 

Photo courtesy of Nick Lobeck.

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